This year's Covenant College men's basketball team is proof that "a little bit" can mean a lot.
Coach Kyle Taylor's Scots exceeded last season's win total with their 64-53 home win Thursday night against Berry College, which beat them 59-50 on Nov. 15 at Berry. Now 9-4, the Scots are 5-0 in 2013 and have won six games in a row, not counting an exhibition trip to Costa Rica in which they went 1-1.
They finished 8-18 last year and Taylor set a reasonable goal of 13-12 -- a winning record -- for this season. He's not ready to upgrade that yet, but as he told his players from the start, he'll be glad to re-evaluate once they've reached 13 wins.
What's the difference?
"The answer to that question is both simple and complex," Taylor said Friday, noting that nine of the top 10 from 2011-12 returned. "The simple answer is that we are a little bit better in just about every category. We are a little bit stronger, a little bit older -- mostly seniors and sophomores -- a little bit more experienced, a little bit deeper, a little bit tougher physically and mentally. That 'little bit' better is showing up lots of places."
As in a two-point win over Rhodes after a six-point loss last year and a nine-point win over Oglethorpe after an overtime defeat last year.
"The more complex answer has to do with our defense," Taylor added. "We are finally able to rely mainly on man-to-man defense, and that has made a world of difference. We are now dictating the game with our aggressive trapping and man-to-man. We are very physical, tough and disciplined on defense.
"Most of our wins are coming not because we are scorching the nets but because we are locking teams up."
Tuesday night, Rhodes scored one point in the final 5:21. Thursday, the game was tied with seven minutes to go and Covenant outscored Berry 16-5 the rest of the way.
Eleven Scots scored Thursday, and senior Sam Bowman led them with 11 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore Colton McGriff and senior captain Jon DeVries lead the team for the season with just over 11 and 10 points a game. The Scots' depth is both a joy and a welcome pain for Taylor and assistant Brian Millar.
"Everyone has improved. That is the beauty of this team," Taylor said. "We are so deep that on any given night anyone is capable of having a big game or knocking down shots at critical times. What I love about this team right now is how everyone has bought in, and everyone is playing unselfish. But the toughest part of my job right now is deciding who is going to play.
"If the other team has tall guards or great penetrators, physical posts who can play on the low block or athletic posts who float on the perimeter, we change our lineup and matchups. We are blessed right now to have a team that has a variety of players who have different skill sets ... but the reality is that players are just making plays."
The physical play and missions focus of the holiday trip to Costa Rica strengthened the players' resolve and unity, Taylor said, and the winning streak has enhanced their "confidence not so much in themselves but in each other and our style of play."
The win streak has been all at home. Next Wednesday the Scots will take it on the road in a tough game at Maryville.
Hiwassee women shut down
A depleted roster has forced the Hiwassee women's basketball team to cancel its last 14 games, but first-year coach Junior Johnson is optimistic about next season with two redshirt freshmen already signed -- including former Sweetwater High School player Shea Ervin -- high school signees Tori McMinn from Tellico Plains and Halei Lequire from Bledsoe County and already seven other commitments. Those include three Georgians and a Florida girl.
"The girls coming in will change the program quickly," said Johnson, a former Soddy-Daisy and Carson-Newman College standout whose years of high school coaching success included stints at Sequatchie County and Van Buren County. He's also the Hiwassee softball coach.
Cleveland State splits
Carley Fetzer scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting as Cleveland State edged Chattahoochee Tech 71-66 in their women's game Friday. Robyn Anthony had 14 points and four steals and Jara Gasper and Hannah Brown had 12 and 10 points with nine rebounds each for the Lady Cougars (11-5).
Chattahoochee's men rose to 16-1 by winning 79-68 despite 20 points and 10 rebounds from Trey Suttles and 16 points from Travis Jones for the Cougars (10-4). Devarick Houston scored 20 in the win.